About friends, and other personal reasons

Background to the texts “Advice about staying or coming back,” “Slave to the word” and “About friends and other personal reasons”: A good friend of mine who was also living in Kaohsiung at the time mentioned via email during her vacation in Cape Town that she felt like staying in South Africa. I suspected that this was only emotion speaking, but I nevertheless took the opportunity to say certain things.




Maybe you haven’t even read the last letter, but to entertain myself, and to clear up uncertainties in the one before that, I decided there was room for a Third Letter.


You mentioned in your email that friends are an important motivation in your possible decision to come back. What I want to say here and now is that friends are not a sustainable motivation.


We enter this world alone, and most of the time we go out alone. People – family, friends, spouses, lovers – are part of our lives, for short or long periods of the journey. We all know we need other people. We also know that we have to be good to each other while we share each other’s lives, partly because it says something of our own nature, and also because we have to carry both the pain and the fellowship with us on our journey.

So it is with us who know each other here. We used to be strangers, but with the passage of time we began to need each other to remain standing for however long we decided to get stuck here.

But – this is not our country, and none of us has immigrated here formally. We must at some stage go our own directions, even if some of us stay here a bit longer than others.

My personal reasons for staying here have expired, although I’m still grateful for those who have kept me standing for the time I’ve been here. If I don’t get on that flight on Thursday, 4 March, it will be to give myself a better chance to visit my sister in England, and to be able to mail more than five boxes of books home.

However, as I mentioned yesterday, I no longer have any illusions about cabinets and tables and exercise bikes that have to be taken along for the journey forward. This is the new state of affairs – for financial reasons, and because the conventional sequence is to, at least temporarily, establish yourself first, and then to start collecting furniture. The simple fact is I’ve never been able to admit that what I’ve been doing for the past five years have, for all practical purposes, amounted to me having established myself here.

The price for the lifting of my self-imposed exile was exceptionally high until now, partly because I might have wanted, subconsciously, to get clarity about who and what I was before I continued my life in my own country. These questions have been resolved.

The price for repatriation is now lower than ever before. If I still choose not to pay the price now, it will mean that I attach a higher value to staying here, right? What value could I conceivably still attach to staying in Taiwan? Even more so if I lecture my best friends on why they should leave their own colourful walls behind for an undefined future in the Land of Family and Barbecue in the Backyard.

My own beliefs on the subject of “voluntary exile” in a foreign country, and the reasons why it is sometimes necessary have been well formulated by now and documented in dozens of pieces of text. Little remains to be said … on this subject.

A question does force itself on me: Can we, even though we are the best of friends, ever really understand why one person is so desperate to leave, and the other so convinced of the need to return?



Army of one


I am an army of one.

Then again, if I think about it, I am part of an army of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions. The only thing is, we all hide in our houses or apartments, or in backrooms, guest rooms, spare rooms, caravans, or homes for the mentally unstable. Some of us keep watch at night, and only go to bed when other people wake up. Some of us keep more regular hours. Sometimes we recognise each other on the street, sometimes not. Some of us have beards; some of us just have a head full of unkempt hair. We are men, and we are women. Some of us are rich; some of us will always be poor. Some own houses, and some only own the shirts on their backs. Some are known to millions; some don’t even always remember their own names.

We – are the Army of One.


The end of an address/Transformation


I’m sitting in a denuded apartment waiting for the moving truck to move me and my junk to a new habitat. Some thoughts have to be jotted down immediately.

First, as I have mentioned many times, my sense of where I belong is highly unstable at the best of times. This raises the question of whether I will ever feel at home somewhere. I mean, some people never fit anywhere, right? Is that not the meaning of the labels “drifter” and “loner”?

Contrary to the first point, I recently experienced a more developed sense of where I belong. I’m also sceptical of fitting in too well. Is it because you have to conform to sets of rules – which are usually never spelled out – to fit in? Such rules include what and how you should dress, how you should behave towards different people, what you should say and what not, what you should believe, which ideals are acceptable and which not, and what ambitions you should have. But what good does it do to be honest – to not conform to the detriment of who you believe you truly are – if you end up alone? What is the value of remaining true to yourself if that means you always walk alone?

The other related thing I want to mention is that I could consider transforming myself into a creature that fits in more easily. It can’t be that difficult – I do after all have friends! (Family doesn’t really count in this case. They have a moral obligation to accept you in their midst … that is to say if your clothing style, your behaviour, what you say, what you believe, and your goals do not offend your family to such an extent that they reach the point where they feel it would be better for everyone if you don’t insist that they satisfy your need to be part of their intimate circle. Fortunately, my clothing style, my behaviour, and even my ambitions are of such a nature that they don’t offend my parents’ or my two sisters’ dignity too much. It is naturally to my advantage to believe this to be true.)

So, with the moving truck drawing closer, what are the chances that I can transform myself to such an extent that I could more easily make an entry into groups and communities?

* * *

At 14:55 it was all over. I wanted to end the last part with the words, “So, as the villains in their blue truck draw closer …” but I thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. Rogues they were, all right, but friendly enough after they managed to extract twice as much money from me as I had hoped the whole operation would cost me. I wanted to argue, but they gathered together, with one of them lifting his T-shirt up ever so slightly to show his underworld tattoo. At that moment I remembered yet another one of the Important Principles of Survival: Restrain yourself from physical conflict with more than one villain at a time when you’re alone. This principle is of course even more applicable if the villains are of the type who carry sofas and washing machines on their backs up three flights of stairs, and even more so if you are, let’s just say, the scholastic type. (Is it necessary to add that it’s not a good idea to want to pull sheets of papers with notes on them from said sofa while the aforementioned villain is carrying the sofa up a flight of stairs?)

All in all, the process went by without much incident. Right now, I’m sitting outside my favourite coffee shop, quietly sucking on a cup of creamy Viennese coffee while I breathe in the sulphur-polluted air of this part of town.

In the hours that passed between the move and the coffee, I had to teach a class at the school where I’ve been working for almost five years. Here I was in the fortunate position to spot a Taiwanese colleague – who works in the office – out of the corner of my eye. Needless to say, her sensual beauty inspires me to make as many photocopies as possible, and to even enter into conversations with her in my distinctive Chinese dialect.

I heard her mentioning something about being single to one of the students. That forced me once again to contemplate my own reputation as a wandering wolf on the road between my house and … well, the 7-Eleven. A quick mental computation of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs reminded me how I have a problem with my place in the world.

This brings us back to my pre-confrontation with the tattooed movers question: Is it possible that I can transform myself into an individual who will have the ability to fit in more easily?


Factor X kicks in

[Briefly, the background to this piece: By September 2003, I was seriously considering leaving Taiwan for a large town in Gauteng, called Bronkhorstspruit.]


Bronkhorstspruit is … a shit place, everybody knows that. But it is also the place where my youngest sister and her husband decided to establish themselves. The town has about fifteen funeral parlours, twenty “Eazy Credit” joints, a Wimpy Bar, and a stationery store that sells a few books. There is no music store. There’s no 7-Eleven that is open 24 hours a day. There’s no lively scene in the centre of town every weeknight at ten o’clock when people come out to enjoy a late supper at temporary pavement restaurants. There’s no coffee shop that stays open until after midnight. There is a huge temple and educational centre built by a Buddhist order from Taiwan. And in a neighbourhood about twenty minutes from town on foot, lives my beloved youngest sister.

Can you justify giving up everything that is familiar to you – or that has become familiar to you over the past five years of your life – just because you miss your family?


What is everything about at this point? What is the whole story of Taiwan, Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa, and the Far East about? What is the idea of “business”, and writing, and barbecue and dessert at “home” about?

It’s about being as happy as you can be. And it’s about regret, especially in my case not regretting later that I didn’t spend more time with my family. It’s about not just following a tedious script like a second-rate actor. It’s about being who you are (if you have finally sorted that out), rather than just being the by-product of all the measures that you implement to survive and to suppress your fear of the day when the gods strike you out of the blue with a bolt of lightning. (Or, realistically speaking, to express your real personality as much as possible after putting all the necessary measures in place. Everyone is afraid of lightning at the end of the day, aren’t we?)

Why am I writing this piece on this Monday at seven minutes past two in the morning? Because I’m moving to an apartment in Benevolent Light New Village in the Mountain of the Phoenix. Is it a bad place? No. Is it a bad neighbourhood? No. Is it a laborious irritation to scrape grease deposits off the kitchen walls with a potato peeler? Yes. Am I wasting valuable time having to suddenly pack rather than to work on my projects? Yes. But I console myself with the thought that I had to buy some boxes anyways to start packing; that I had to leave the dark dump I’ve been calling my home for the past almost five years at some point.

Why does my new apartment inspire me to write this particular text? Because I was reminded of the fact that my life in this country doesn’t follow a script; I write the story as I live. To name but one example, I most assuredly did not know two weeks ago that in two weeks’ time I would be sitting on all fours on top of a marble slab with a pair of surgical rubber gloves on, scraping off clots of grease with a potato peeler. (Sorry, I just had to mention that again.)

But this little insight, and the photographic potential of the view from my new kitchen is not what is really important (or it’s just part of the larger story). What really bothers me is the fear of what lies ahead for me when I no longer hope for the day I return to the land of my birth. I think I’m afraid my life in South Africa will become … ordinary, caught between the fear that someone will break into my apartment while I’m out shopping for garlic sauce or biltong, and the fear that I would suddenly wake up one morning and I’ll be thirty years older.


“Anxiety” is for me more than just a psychological term. As long as I run around and struggle for a better tomorrow, as long as I faithfully make notes on THE PROCESS, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. Then I feel as if I am on my way. I think I fear the day I’m supposed to declare that I have arrived, and someone jumps from behind a bush and shouts: “Surprise! In the end you did follow the script! You (also) win the prize!”

Then again, maybe the prize is happiness. Maybe the prize is that you feel you belong somewhere, and your life has meaning because it has meaning to people who are important to you. Maybe the prize is that you feel you can go ahead with your creative work, because you did arrive, but it’s still important that you say what you want to say.

Or am I just afraid that, despite the wide availability of garlic sauce to enjoy over your barbecue, I will still get bored with Bronkhorstspruit?


Am I trying to run away from what I already know? That we are highly developed animals that must try our best with our fantastic, yet limited capabilities to serve Good rather than Bad, and to carry forward the flame of Polite Civilisation until our time is up and we must pass the torch to the next generation.

I need to stop dancing in circles.

[Later on Monday, 15 September 2003]

I’m worried that I would feel my purpose has been served and I that I am rewarded with a “normal life”.

Why is my current life to some extent still okay, even if I want to get away from it? Because I am still fighting for a better life. But what happens when you reach that point of which you dream? Or do you keep moving the point further away?

What if someone were to tell me that life is never “normal”, and that a “normal life” is a dream beyond most people’s reach? “Everybody is constantly struggling for something better,” the person would say, “even though their lives on the face of it, to observers like you, might appear normal and ordinary.”

Still – I would ask, for what do they struggle? For financial security? That’s not good enough for me. The struggle for financial security is to me just a way to give a greater struggle a better chance of success.

Perhaps my opponent in this debate would then give a sly smile before he played his trump card. “You know what man,” he would say, “you’re just grumpy because you don’t have someone to brighten your day a little bit.”

In such a case I won’t have much of a choice with my counterargument: Is this the best we can do? Fifty thousand years of evolution since our ancestors huddled together in caves and bludgeoned each other to death with mammoth bones, and that’s the best answer that we can come up with? You just need a little love?

The question is simple: Am I on the right track with my current plans? Or is my face in the right direction, but my feet not quite on the right path? (Do I still reckon there is only one path that goes in that direction?)

I recently did some research on ways to make money without having to work for someone else. I concluded that even I might be able to be successful with a few ideas. Now, maybe it was all that scratching off grease in the new kitchen, or the fact that I was going to have an apartment with proper windows for the first time in nearly five years in Taiwan. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have thought about it at one point or another. However, earlier tonight it struck me as I pedalled through the dark streets on my creaking bicycle, that I have never been in a position where I could say I knew how I could make money in South Africa, which is important considering that I have always regarded money as the main reason I couldn’t go back. I’ve never been in the position where I could ask myself whether this is truly what I wanted to do without any reservation; if I were truly ready to plant my feet in a piece of South Africa full of fresh cement; if barbecue and Sunday lunches with my family would truly be a panacea for all my ills.

These thoughts are the reason I’m writing this particular piece on this Tuesday morning, 32 minutes after midnight, rather than packing the dozens of pieces of junk I’ve accumulated over the years that I exhibit as “ornaments” in my living room.

[Tuesday, 16 September 2003, almost one o’clock in the afternoon]

As I was riding back last night from my new apartment, I asked myself an administrative question: Do I really want to stay in Taiwan? I was mildly surprised at my immediate answer: No.

A short distance down the street, past the general store where the beautiful woman hits the till, past a few old gents sitting outside someone’s miserable home drinking rice wine, past the deserted morning market area that smells of rotten tofu, comes the follow-up question: Do I want to go back to South Africa? The tentative answer: Yes, but …

Beyond the military base with the overgrown wall I first thought was a castle, into the last stretch of road before you’re back in a part of town where fruit sellers are still open shortly before midnight, and where lonely men chant songs about lost love in cheap KTV parlours, I repeated the answer: “Yes, but?”

“But,” I said out loud under the leopard skin mask covering my mouth, “two weeks after I had found an apartment in Bronkhorstspruit, after I had unpacked my books and hung sheets over the windows, I want to go to Mainland China. For three months.”

Back at home I was annoyed because it seemed as if I had come up with a new plan. I got comfortable behind my computer and wrote the previous page (including the fact that I’ve never been in a position where I could say I know how I could make money in South Africa).

Just as I was considering the merits of last night’s final paragraph, my phone rang. When I saw it was an international call, I realised it must be my friend L. I knew why he was calling. Fifteen minutes later I chucked the last drops of gin from the little airline bottle down my throat, lit up a cigarillo, and repeated the words to myself: “Born at eight minutes past three … a little blue in the face, but doing well … four kilograms.”

I felt happy for my friend, his wife, their families, and especially for the little guy who finally saw daylight. I thought by myself the timing was interesting. Suddenly the whole idea of being a grown-up and having your own children, and the huge financial and moral responsibilities thereof were no longer just an issue that could fill up a piece of writing. It happened to my best friend! And I had no choice but to mumble through the cigar smoke, “It’s fucking profound.”

The few drops of gin weren’t really enough to celebrate the great news, so I jumped on my bike and raced to the 7-Eleven to buy a half-jack Jim Beam – which they no longer had in stock. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting with a can of Qing Dao and another cigarillo at my dressing table. Good thoughts about my friend and their firstborn led to renewed speculation about my own life.

I wondered again if I had come up with a new plan with the three-months-in-China remark. Meaning to spoil my fun, I wondered what I would do after the three months.

I was hoping that I would say I would go back to South Africa then, to plant my knees – rather than just my feet – in some fresh cement. But I realised that I was still not sure about “what then”.

That’s when I lost it and whispered menacingly in the direction of my reflection in the mirror: “Your life is a wheel! It’s going to continue turning and turning and turning! Round and round and round!”

My life is a wheel. And it will keep turning until I throw a spanner in the spokes. Or until someone else does it for me …


Dark Tuesday | Lighter Thursday


You don’t want to unnecessarily keep hammering on the same note, but I think one of these days I’m going to be in deep shit. My suspicion is strong that I have estranged all four of my friends at different times, and for different reasons. (Is this better than to alienate them for the same reason?) More than that, the suspicion is developing that they’re even going so far as to avoid me. Can you believe it? Innocent old me who always carries on in discussions about “struggle and creation” and who delivers such well-meaning lectures to anyone within earshot about how their lives are worth bugger-all if they can’t stand away from their own creations and like the God of Genesis say, “It’s good!” (And to think I’m just trying to help them lead more fulfilling lives.)

In all honesty, I don’t think my theories and sermons are the only blunt swords that scare off friends and potential acquaintances. I am, except for my highly original theories and associated monologues, a highly boring individual. To be sure, I can join in the conversation around the barbecue fire if the conversation is about history or religion, but I might be tempted to be too clever, and maybe to know too much for the other people to also feel good about their general knowledge. So, unless the conversation is about sin, the Iraq war, Hitler, Stalin, or the Middle Ages, I am in trouble. I don’t have a motorcycle (can’t even ride one), and I don’t go along to beach resorts on weekends. I never tell dirty jokes beside said barbecue fires (can never remember the damn things), and I never do anything on my own that will cause people to tell others about it so I can build up a healthy social reputation.

But let’s stop staggering around the nettle tree. The primary reason I’m persona non grata is because I always arrive at events alone, and I never leave with anyone (mainly of the opposite sex). I am, therefore, by definition, a loner. And as people have known since before the time of John the Baptist, everyone shits in their pants when it looks like a loner is heading in their direction.

The Loner babbles on about things that only he understands and finds interesting. The Loner is a leper. The Loner is a hunchback. The Loner has a skin disease that causes his scent to be picked up from a distance. The Loner has tuberculosis, or AIDS … that drips blood from open sores on his hands that threatens to infect all those standing around barbecue fires telling dirty jokes.

The Loner is a fucking genius. It can’t be any other way. I mean, even if he didn’t hold a degree in history and religious studies, even if he hasn’t written a book of several hundred pages about his own life, even if he wasn’t already working on his second volume of poetry (which, like the first, would be an unpublished masterpiece), even if he hasn’t formulated his own principles of a Meaningful Life, he must necessarily be exceptional: An unknown prophet who are not even recognised in a foreign country, let alone in his own backyard (if he could ever afford such a thing in the country of his birth).

He must be something special, someone who is just not understood and appreciated by the plebs that he would have liked to call his friends. Why? Because god only knows, if he isn’t, he’s nothing. Then he’s a rotting carcass avoided even by other intelligent, sophisticated, enlightened people he had once called “friends”. For instinct forces even the most enlightened among us to turn away from what is dead. To flee away from that which once lived, but that has since first taken a turn for the worst, and then went to die a slow death in the half-lit solitude of his private quarters, somewhere in a neighbourhood where no one who speaks his language ever shows their face.

Oh well. Fuck everyone, then.


Who read my piece on hammering on the same note?

Since Tuesday, 29 July 2003 at 1:32 in the morning my one friend phoned to ask if I had time – he wanted to show me a new bicycle shop in town. Later I called one of my other friends. We talked for over an hour about work, and about the uncertainties she struggles with every day. And so on. She’s apparently really busy. She apparently really has more friends than yours truly, and some of her friends keep her busy with up to twenty mobile text messages per day. This morning just after breakfast, my other friend called. She was sorry she’s been so quiet recently, but until the end of this week she’s busy from Chinese class in the morning until half past nine in the evening with work. So, she asked, how about coffee tonight at her place.

Oh well.